In the past week, the Boris Bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland has changed into a Tory Tunnel and been ridiculed by a leading think tank. The Prime Minister’s plans for the bridge may have morphed but they have not disappeared, as the Fraser of Allander Institute would like to see.
The respected policy shop looked at the tunnel's growth potential, climate impact, connectivity and opportunity costs and concluded: ‘It won’t deliver the economic boost some claim, it isn’t a priority, it would go to the wrong location, it wouldn’t be consistent with climate change objectives, and the money could be better spent on other things. Apart from that, it’s a cracking idea.’
It was an unusually sassy take from a staid institution and it should be noted that Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has said the bridge/tunnel remains ‘at discussion stage’. The UK Government believes the symbolism of an Ulster crossing is valuable to the Union, and while it still might be, ministers are in danger of getting caught up in symbolism rather than the more important mission of reasserting the UK Government as Scotland’s primary government.
So much has already been ceded to Holyrood in powers and revenue control that the salvageability of the Union is an open question. In an ideal world, the Prime Minister would task a constitutional commission with redrawing the various devolution settlements to undo the most reckless concessions made by New Labour and the Cameron Tories. Far from ‘killing nationalism stone dead’, devolution has emboldened separatism in Scotland and will do so in Wales one day. Reasserting the primacy of the UK Parliament while returning the devolved assemblies to their factory settings should be a legislative priority.
In the absence of anything so bold, we should settle for ministers flexibly interpreting the devolution settlement – as the Nationalists currently do. Since Holyrood currently spends public money on and interferes in international affairs, which is a power reserved to Westminster, there is no reason Westminster cannot begin to interfere in matters devolved to Holyrood – if it does so cannily. As I have argued before, the UK Government should adopt a policy of direct spending in Scotland, going around the Scottish Government altogether.
This requires some important choices on how, where and why to spend. The ‘how’ could be answered — and the Scottish Government circumvented — via the Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU structural funding now that we’ve Brexited. Just as structural funding allowed Brussels to spend directly in Scotland, the Shared Prosperity Fund could mimic its approach.
We still don’t know how the fund will operate. Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, the SNP’s Alison Thewliss said: ‘European funding has been a steady source over many decades, with funds invested in our communities, building infrastructure and changing the lives of our people, yet we still do not know what will replace it… We will not accept one penny less of the European funding that we had in the new shared prosperity fund.’
The Nationalists grasp that Boris could use the fund to avoid the cash-chomping grievance machine at Holyrood and would kick up a hellish fuss if he did. That’s why, if the Prime Minister went down this route, he would have to structure the fund accordingly. Rather than the UK Government barging in and funding whatever infrastructure takes its fancy, ministers should set up a bidding system so that Scottish communities (and, indeed, those across the country) can apply for a grant. This could be for a community garden, a new retail promenade, an after-school club in Easterhouse or potholes filled in Elgin. If Boris wants to be particularly daring, he could even allow bids which seek to fill gaps left by the Scottish Government, such as funding a new children’s hospital in Edinburgh or music lessons in Glasgow schools.
By having such bids initiated in the community, it would make it harder for the Scottish Government or SNP-controlled councils to block any projects. Of course, the Nationalists are as likely to respond by setting up their own fund, purely out of spite, but then Westminster’s pockets are so much deeper.
Where? Prioritise bids from those parts of Scotland with high levels of deprivation. They need support the most, have already been clobbered by a decade of welfare brutalism and are the most susceptible to nationalism.
The third and final question is ‘why?’ The Prime Minister appreciates the power of symbols but symbolism must be a side benefit; the central imperative ought to be investing in Scotland (and the other regions and nations of the UK). Alister Jack is a businessman who made a pretty penny before going into politics and brings an understanding of commercial imperatives. He knows you don’t build things for symbolism; you build them to be used. What metaphoric power they accrue comes from users’ perception of their purpose and experience of their utility. The Millennium Dome was intended as a powerful symbol but people only came to appreciate it once it was put to better use as the O2.
Scots don’t want white elephants or vanity projects. We got landed with a £414m one 20 years ago when the Scottish Parliament was built, and look how that turned out. The Prime Minister should use the Shared Prosperity Fund to demonstrate what the Union’s financial clout can do to transform communities and lives in Scotland. Let it be driven by the people, to meet their needs, and to give them a sense of ownership and say-so over where they live. Nicola Sturgeon often accuses the Tories of ‘talking down Scotland’; here is the Tories’ chance to show themselves building up Scotland.